With the ending to Mass Effect 3 whipping up a storm of controversy, Richard Hayden considers BioWare’s position
If nothing else, this month’s furore over the conclusion of the Mass Effect trilogy has shown the world that BioWare fans care. A lot. Surely, there is no precedent in the industry for the size and ferocity of the public outpouring of emotions that have run from incomprehension to fury and on through to grief about the shooter RPG’s much analysed final sequence.
However, just in case you’ve been living under a rock since Mass Effect 3’s release, let’s recap the whole business. Don’t worry, I’ll be brief.
On March 6, BioWare released the much-heralded and hugely anticipated concluding episode of its best-selling and genre-defining space RPG saga. And there was much rejoicing.
At least, for a few days. Then some of the really eager gamers out there finished the game and not all of them (quite a lot, in fact) were entirely satisfied with the ending. Indeed, it seems many of them totally hated the final moments of the game, citing confusion, a sweeping change of narrative track and inconsistent lore among its faults. Overwhelmingly, however, the main concern was a lack of promised choices, the very core feature of the series up to that point.
Thereafter, a backlash very quickly gathered pace, culminating in massive fan fallout the length and breadth of BioWare’s forums and the wider internet. Some of it was the angry daubings of the entitled but a lot of it was balanced and thoughtful criticism of people who felt cheated, or at least, let down.
But it didn’t end there – the collective voice of the fans continued to grow louder and louder. Until, finally BioWare heard. In response, the company co-founder Ray Muzyka wrote on the official forums, “It’s incredibly painful to receive feedback from our core fans that the game’s endings were not up to their expectations. Our first instinct is to defend our work and point to the high ratings offered by critics – but out of respect to our fans, we need to accept the criticism and feedback with humility.”
They were the humble remarks of someone who felt wounded by a trusted ally. However, he also conceded that trust should not be mistaken for slavish devotion and that all parties – fans, developers and publishers – have the right to express themselves civilly. He added, “I believe passionately that games are an art form, and that the power of our medium flows from our audience, who are deeply involved in how the story unfolds, and who have the uncontested right to provide constructive criticism.
“At the same time, I also believe in and support the artistic choices made by the development team. The team and I have been thinking hard about how to best address the comments on ME3’s endings from players, while still maintaining the artistic integrity of the game.”
There is a lot more to the blog posting but really all the rest revolves around the final phrase of that quote – maintaining the artistic integrity of the game.
It is clear that BioWare feels it still retains full ownership of the narrative and how it should be expressed. It invites sensible fan discussion but also makes clear that it will not engage on any level with destructive or negative commentary. And that has been a feature of the fan response that has surprised and disappointed many.
The massive outcry has been mixed in tone. Much of it has been polite, serious and thoughtful, rarely abusive or destructive. But that element definitely exists, too, which is disappointing to the developers and rational fans alike.
Then there were other specific campaigns that, on the surface, seem like harmless fun, such as Retake Mass Effect. The drive armed itself with the goal of imploring BioWare to introduce additional endings that added clarity and closure to the existing game. They hoped to achieve this aim by urging supporters to donate a small sum of money to the Child’s Play charity, which brings video gaming to sick children around the world.
Who could take offense at that?
In fact, the action could easily be interpreted as a passive-aggressive stance seeking to garland the campaign’s agenda with the goodwill and legitimacy of a charity that had no say in its name being used in this way. Nor does it allow BioWare to engage in any direct debate because, you know, only evil people would argue with a charity for sick children.
Whether the coordinators of Child’s Play hold that view is unknown but they certainly felt it was time to shut down the campaign much earlier than the drive’s organizers intended, firmly requesting on Friday that the matter should be closed once $80,000 in donations was reached.
The charity’s founders said, “Apparently some of the people giving to the cause seemed to think that they were paying for a new ending to Mass Effect… [We’ve] been asked what the goal is, and how much they need to raise in order to get the ending produced. We’ve also been contacted by PayPal due to a high number of people asking for their donations back. This is in addition to readers who simply couldn’t understand how this was connected to Child’s Play’s mission. We were dealing with a lot of very confused people, more every day, and that told us we had a problem.”
They summarized their position, “Child’s Play cannot be a tool to draw attention to a cause. Child’s Play must be the cause.”
Despite the abrupt end to their campaign, the Retake Mass Effect protesters claimed a victory, which puts the industry at a crossroads. Now, prior to any major game release, publishers may scrutinize the ending and ask themselves, “Will angry fans launch a charity-based campaign against us for this?” It would sound ridiculous if it hadn’t already happened.
Even now, publishers may be wondering about existing projects, perhaps planning to make the developers tone down the more experimental or innovative aspects of their under-construction games. It’s not hard to see that this atmosphere would lead us towards a mandate for mediocrity – invention stifled by a fear of failure. Failure is not fun but nothing great is created without the spectre of failure to drive innovation and improvement.
Many have said that publishers and developers are commercial entities that should be held accountable to their customers, and that is true to an extent. We should not accept substandard development or manufacture. Technically broken games are a blight on the industry and should not be tolerated, while poorly implemented DLC is an issue fans are rightly vocal about and publishers ignore at their peril.
However, is ME3 actually broken? Perhaps a few dodgy disks have shipped but the most prominent problems appear to be with the narrative and choice options, not the functionality of the software. And that’s when we arrive at BioWare’s core defense – the right to artistic self-expression. Or, to use its own phrase, “Maintaining the artistic integrity of the game.”
The world of art thrives on discussion, debate and even a little controversy. But I am struggling to find an instance of the art world rising up in great voice and demanding changes to what is ostensibly a finished piece of work. That action takes fan appreciation into assumed ownership and for all the bold marketing that told gamers they could play the game their way and that they should take charge of their destiny, ownership of Mass Effect remains firmly within EA’s BioWare division.
Under these circumstances, discussion, debate, even dissension, are all engaged and often encouraged. Demand, however, strays into entitlement territory.
Entitlement. It’s a word that is used rather too readily nowadays but it does accurately describe the sort of self-absorbed fannish behavior that can be an embarrassment to the rest of the community. Is what we have seen from some sectors of the Mass Effect 3 reaction entitled? Yes, in the more extreme forms of protest when an aggressive position has been taken to make demands.
Because it all comes back to the right to artistic self-expression. Yes, there is a commercial consideration but private patronage of the arts has a long history and anyone who wants to see what happens when a patron overtly influences an artist need only glance through the history of Classical-era Italian art, dominated as it is by religious themes largely due to the financial support of the Catholic church.
BioWare has lead the way in evolving the role of narrative in Western video gaming, something the community has noisily supported before now. Perhaps this time the team has mis-stepped, although that is a subjective conclusion and a discussion for another day. However, removing its right to freely create art in the manner of its own choosing (and let there be no doubt that demanding changes or additions to the current narrative is forcing an artistic change on a completed project) is a militant response to a perceived error on the part of a much-loved company and franchise. Ultimately, artistic rights can be given away but should never be taken away.
Agree? Disagree? Read our feature on the fan’s perspective.